Isaiah 2:1-5 | Psalm 122 | Romans 13:11-14 | Matthew 24:36-44
I remember one day, as a young child – I was maybe 5 or 6 – “helping” my mom in the kitchen of the old A-frame we used to rent. However old I was, I was at the age where children often have a lot of questions. I grew up in a very Christian home, so even at that young age I had a lot of questions about God. Somehow we got on the topic of Jesus’ second coming, and I remember my mother telling me that Jesus was coming back soon. She was sure of it. She wasn’t sure Jesus would come back before she passed away, but definitely before I did, which kind of scared me. I was really looking forward to life ahead.
I remember my grandma saying something similar, except she was sure the second coming would be even sooner, before she died.
But this kind of thought is not reserved just for my family, as if we are just a rather apocalyptic bunch. I interned at a transitional housing development for homeless veterans for a summer as a chaplain. We only had one official “service” and before I got up to preach, a staff member decided to share his conviction that we were indeed living in the end times – a statement that received quite a few “amens” from those gathered.
I’m not sure how we all understand the end times here at Grant Park. Chances are there’s a variety of understandings, but for many of us, this expectation of an imminent, impending doom might strike us as a little naïve, a little too literal of an understanding of Scripture.
And yet, Brie and I have found ourselves unknowingly making similar statements lately. In light of American politics, global terrorism, and environmental crisis (to name just a few problems), it’s easy to start slipping into despair. It seems that it’s only a matter of time before the damage done to our earth is irreparable. The icecaps will melt, much of the world will flood, we’ll be propelled into a new ice age. Or one trigger happy president or dictator will decide to nuke another country, and will in turn be nuked by someone else and so will begin a nuclear WWIII, that will destroy much of civilization until we’re living in a post-apocolyptic world like the one in The Road or The Book of Eli. (Maybe I am a bit apocalyptic)
Maybe it isn’t that apocalyptic, maybe it’s just the way the same problems seem to keep sticking around no matter how much we try to fix them. Maybe it’s seeing the way people treat one another in our day to day lives. Maybe it’s seeing relationships dissolve, or families break up.
I don’t think Brie and I are alone in feeling a sense of hopelessness from time to time. Many of us go through this kind of thing at some point. There’s a kind of loss of innocence many of us experience, a time when we realize just how broken the world is, and how helpless we are to make any kind of real change. Each of us is just one small person. What can we do?
So it becomes easy to slip into despair. It’s easy to lose hope.
But hope is what we, the Church, live for. We actually believe the world is moving toward restoration, despite all evidence to the contrary. We actually believe in a living God who is moving and active in the world in a real way.
A key element of the Apostle Paul’s theology is the idea that the Jesus event: the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – was the in breaking of a new reality. Much of the world might look the same, but don’t be fooled, everything has changed. As Jesus himself said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” God entered history in the person of Jesus Christ, death has been defeated, the Holy Spirit has descended upon the Church.
Paul believed who Jesus is and what he did really really matters, and as Christians we are meant to embody this new hope we have in Christ. While the rest of the world continues to be asleep in the darkness, we are commanded to wake up and see the new day dawning.
“…The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light”.
We don’t just witness this light, we carry it with us, we wear it like armor. We carry hope like a lamp into dark places.
One of my favorite things about our old apartment in Durham was a sunroom that set just off our kitchen. It was small, especially after we stuffed all our camping gear in there, but we left ourselves enough room for two small tables and a few chairs. Some evenings, when the temperature was right – which was only in the spring and fall – we would eat our dinner out there. And as the sun set and the night encroached, we would sometimes begin to see little blips of light, dancing in the grass. And as the darkness increased, so too did the little blips of light – fireflies.
It was as if the night called the fireflies out of hiding, as if they lived to bring light into the darkness.
There is darkness around us, too. The world, unfortunately is quite full of it. We see it in our personal lives, as well as in society. This past week Brie and I were back home, and while our time was filled with love and laughter with our families, the darkness was always just outside the door, sneaking in whenever it got a chance. This past week my parents told me about multiple friends and acquaintences who were getting divorced, one of the couples I am very close with. That’s not to make a judgment on divorce – I think the church has often been guilty of trying to simplify a complicated reality when it comes to divorce – but it’s still sad. It’s sad to see a relationship that was founded on love disintegrate. And I couldn’t open my Facebook without seeing posts and articles that were full of anger and lament over world events, like Standing Rock. There was nothing wrong with these posts in and of themselves, there is a place for anger and lament, but they were a reminder that all is not right with the world. There is still so much division. The darkness is always nearby, it seems.
Hope does not ignore the darkness that surrounds us. It sees the darkness, and it rebukes the darkness. It sees evil and exposes it. It sees the break and sets it.
Hope is not trite, or sentimental. Hope springs up and out of the lack. If everything is right, there’s no need for hope. What do we hope for, if all is well? Hope is an act of resistence against the violence and despair of the world.
In our Old Testament Scripture Isaiah prophecies that
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
For Isaiah to make such a hopeful prophecy he must first acknowledge that this is not the current state of the world. Implicit in his prophecy that they shall – in the future – beat their swords into plowshares is the reality that right now there are swords. The hope that in the future the people of the earth will no longer learn war anymore acknowledges that right now there are many people learning war.
Hope doesn’t shut its eyes. It sees the ugliness and believes beauty can rise up out of it. It sees death and stubbornly believes in the God of resurrection.
A few nights ago Brie and I were watching the new Star Trek with my parents – don’t worry, I’m not going to give anything away – there’s this scene where things are looking bleak, and Captain Kirk says to Spock, “How do we get out of this one Spock? We’ve got no ship, no crew. Not the best odds.” And Spock replies, “We will do what we have always done, Jim, we will find hope in the impossible.”
To speak of hope in a time of comfort is trivial, but to speak of hope when the situation is dire is to make an audacious claim. Captain Kirk tells it like it is, it seems there’s no chance of them getting out of this one, and Spock doesn’t try to minimize anything Kirk said. In fact, he makes it sounds worse. He says it’s impossible, but he says they will find hope in the impossible.
As those who have been given the light of Christ, we are called to be like Captain Kirk and Spock, to seek out hope in the impossible. We are to believe that the day is near, even though all we can see is darkness. We need one another to maintain such hope. We can’t do it on our own.
The Church is where we learn to have audacious hope. Isaiah understood this, and so his vision is dependent on the multitudes coming together to worship God in the House of the Lord. The prophet says,
All the nations shall stream to [the house of the Lord]
[When] many people shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways,
and that we may walk in his paths.
The Church is where we learn the ways of God. Where our imagination is set on fire. Where we let the Holy Spirit, not the powers and principalities, shape our reality. It’s where we come together to remember the resurrected Christ even though we see death all around. While the rest of the world continues to forge swords, we come together as the people of God to start – now, today – to beat them into plowshares. We will turn bomb casings into planter boxes, and prisons into housing for the homeless. The rest of the world will build walls and we will tear them down.
But maybe it’s not always as grandiose as that. It also looks like building a little free library for the neighbors, even though someone keeps stealing the books, or welcoming newcomers into your church with open arms, even though they’re strangers, or opening your building up for veterans to receive free counseling. Or maybe it’s simply asking that co-worker how they’re doing, when they’ve seemed off all day, and taking the time to listen to them. These acts embody hope. They participate in that new reality Paul believed in, and the new heaven and earth Isaiah looked forward to. These acts resist despair.
You, Grant Park, are already embodying hope to this community.
But it’s difficult, in my experience, to put on hope day in and day out. It’s a conscious decision. Paul’s exhortation to wake up, lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light seems to be figurative, but I also think there’s a literal element to it. Hope is something we choose daily, hourly, moment by moment. Every morning we must consciously wake up and decide to put on hope. To steel ourselves against the despair of the world, and trust in the resurrected God.
We don’t know what the end will be like, or when it will come. We don’t know how literal or figuratively to interpret Jesus’ words, but we do believe there is restoration in the future, that God is working, that salvation is, indeed, nearer to us now than when we became believers. So let us choose now and always to put on the armor of light. Let us choose to put on Christ. The night is almost over, the day is nearly here.
Let us dream together. Let us hope together.